At the moment the world began to die, few people felt it.
Even fewer knew they could do something about it.
Even fewer still had the requisite skills or knowledge to act on that knowledge.
And even fewer still had the technology that could harness those skills into something useful for this particular situation.
And so there were twelve.
It was the ultimate weapon.
It would decisively, conclusively, and immediately end the war, that secret war that had been waged since time immemorial. The enemy would be irrevocably destroyed, defeated in detail, sacrificed to the cause of the righteous. Of course, there were the doomsayers, proclaiming that the hubris of the project would end us all. It was hard to claim John was hubristic, however, when he subjected his system to every conceivable iteration of failure testing.
They had identified thousands of possible failure points, and fixed them all. That left seven distinct failure modes, and although they were fundamentally impossible to avoid, John’s team was able to decrease their probability to roughly one-in-ten-trillion each.
It still wasn’t enough to feel safe. They developed fail safes and response protocols to the failure modes, and John had personally rehearsed them all. Hundreds of thousands of times.
It still wasn’t enough.
A one-in-10^88 chance was impossibly small, but it was still possible. So there was always the ultimate fail safe. The Line. He rubbed his right forearm like a touchstone. An astute observer would note that the system actually had but a single point of failure, and that was John, but John had personally accounted for that, as well. That small portion of his free will was locked away, in a place he could only access if they had really and truly won.
For a brief, bemused moment, he thought that the only flaw in the system was that the activation sequence wasn’t something more dramatic. It should have been a massive switch, or an ominous button, or some incantation. But, as it were, it was relatively unceremonious. A few keystrokes, and it was done.
The world shuddered.
No need to panic, he thought himself as he went through the motions. He had literally rehearsed this exact scenario at least fifteen hundred times, enough to where the movements were rote. His team controlled the outputs and inputs and monitored the status of the buffer. John did the intense series of on-the-fly calculations in order to determine the precise initial vector, and after a few tense moments, the variables checked out, and he rotated the dial.
In short, they would simply roll the system back an hour, and start over. They’d have to triple-check everything. Twice. Each day. It would be at least another year before they’d be confident enough to try again. But, he’d waited this long. A year was trivial.
As the dial rotated past the origin, his forearm, which had begun to ache since the start of the process, now throbbed in earnest.
The world shuddered again.
At this point, it was cacaphony. The team was visibly agitated. Some were even panicked. This didn’t make sense.
One in ten-trillion is tremendously unlucky. But one-in-ten-trillion, squared? Probability analysis goes out the window. The question itself changes. It’s no longer, Is this just coincidence? No, the question on everyone’s mind was simply, What the hell is going on? The possibility space was endless, but one immediately leaped to mind: Sabotage. No matter, he couldn’t spare the thought. He needed to focus. They had still rehearsed the failure modes. This was still comfortably in the realm of their practice. But the response protocol was drastic enough that everyone was agitated and on edge.
“The lines, sir. They’ll be–”
“Short circuit the whole fucking physical system if you have to. The whole thing is fucked anyway! DO IT!”
“Sir, this is going to be a destructive read. If we can’t–”
“There’s no other options. Back them. Back them all up.”
“If it doesn’t work, we’re all…”
“This is a direct order.”
The world shuddered as the transmigration began.
John looked around. His colleagues were the first to go, their brains literally vanishing from their skulls, then converted into raw data, then pumped back into the system via the γ-class L.E. lines. As he scanned this displays, he saw the same scene playing out across the entirety of the system. If you zoomed out far enough, it didn’t even seem like much had changed. No explosions, no catastrophic crashes, nothing of that sort. After all most of the systems with the potential for catastrophic disaster were managed by the deadminds.
But seeing it up close and in person? He had seen people die before, very rarely. Usually it was willingly, people who had simply grown tired and were ready to “move on”. Idiots. They died as they deserved, peacefully but without pomp or fanfare. But these people did not will it, and they did not die peacefully. It reminded him of a puppet whose strings were cut. All the motive power that was keeping the awkward automatons of flesh balanced, gone in an instant. Billions, all massacred in the span of a moment.
John made the snap decision to pipe the data from the payload back into the system as it was being constructed. If another component failed, he couldn’t risk losing all the data. It would divert a small measure of resources, and they would still have the physical storage structure to recover the payload. The only downside was the potential for signal degradation; it was almost guaranteed that they would lose a few to noise, which would be a tragedy, for certain. But it paled in comparison to the possibility of losing everything. Besides, you could still recreate them, for the most part. The memories might be tricky to reconstruct, but at least they’d still be there.
Yes, there was noise. There was too much noise. Every signal was being garbled. Warped beyond recognition. There was interference coming from… Somewhere? Only about 1,000 identities were piped through, and of those, the only thing left was raw DNA. Change of plans.
The payload was already constructed. It existed conceptually, in abstract. Now he needed to realize it. The Line was the most secure object in the known universe, and it had more than enough capacity within its buffer. He did more calculations. It would cut into its capabilities significantly. Maybe six hours, tops? It didn’t matter.
He’d saved the people. He didn’t save the world. The world was done for, but a world could be recreated easily. No. Not easily, of course. Nothing would be easy at this point. The system had failed at three separate junctures. This was not chance. Something, someone, was responsible.
And that’s when he saw him. The man who was out of place, out of time.
He was old.
No one was old anymore.
This was his doing. There was no question. In pure reflex, he activated his Battle forms. He had even practiced this, fighting against countless unseen enemies. But, what good would it do? What to do? Fight or flight? What would he be fighting? What was the man doing? Those hand gestures were ancient. A past architect? A back door? No, the system was sacrosanct. Besides, the man had a tool. It was–
The old man was holding The Line.
No, No, No, no, NO.
Flight. It was done. There would be no climactic fight to save the world or its people. It didn’t matter what the old man’s motivations were, how he got there, anything. Any time spent thinking about it was time wasted. There was no option left but to run, and to rebuild. He’d have to destroy the entire system, every last remnant though, to fully rebuild. He began to–
No. No time.
He didn’t have time. He’d have to do that part later. He’d have time later, but not now. It was time to run. He didn’t know what the old man was capable of, and none of this was rehearsed. He committed to the decision, and it was done. It was out of his hands now, so he had time to think, wonder, and speculate.
Who was the old man? How did he get a copy of The Line? Is it even a copy? How will I recover the payload? How much of the system would survive? How useful would it be? How will I destroy it? What would this new world look like?
Questions, questions, questions. All the answers would be there, eventually.
The system was procedurally generating humans as fast as it could churn them out. It started with the thousand or so genetic patterns it had recovered from the first aborted payload attempt. The rest, it built from patterns. Ten million and change.
And then with all the fury of an exploding star, a new world was born.
John emerged on the back end of eternity.
An Eternity Later
February 2, 1368
The forests outside Череповец, Вологодская область
The stench of sex and blood was thick in the air, affronting the nostrils of the lone traveller. If he were with Muggles, he would be cutting through the wild gorse with his shashka, but it hung, unused, on his belt. If he were with wizards, a few well-placed Reductos would clear the path, but his wand was in its holster on his wrist.
This traveller was alone, and had no appearances to keep up, for now, and as such, the path cleared its own way, saving him also the trouble of locating his quarry. The smell would have been enough, but easier is always better. As he drew closer, sounds began to mingle with the scents to form a two-pronged assault on the senses.
Moans. Shrieks. Wails.
Pounding. Thumping. Banging.
Flesh atop flesh. Bows across strings. Lips upon horns.
He approached the small cabin, and glanced at the awkward stilts that held it above the ground. They were disguised with a small and silly glamour to look like the legs of a chicken. He paused for a moment, deciding how best to enter. Sometimes, dramatics were useful tools to achieving your ends. But sometimes, they backfired. What would the consequences be? And what were the consequences of his hesitation, however slight?
Every decision was like this. Every minute, every moment, was another moment in which his enemy was allowed to persist. Even the fractional amount of time it took to pause and consider the question, “To knock, or not to knock”, was another dread deed, another bit of senseless evil.
Every decision. It was torture. Time, time was of the essence. And so he entered.
The scene was ridiculous. Caligula would have been proud. Or more likely, he would have been envious to the point of rage. Every possible indulgence was being fulfilled. There was sex, of course. Always the obsession with sex. But if it gave them a moment of solace, why begrudge them? Every reasonable iteration of sexual combinations was currently being explored on almost every available surface within the grand hall whose interior was far larger than the simple cabin’s exterior.
There was food, and drink, as well. Food and sex. Drink and sex. Food and drink and sex. Sex with food and drink. Drinking food. Drinking sex. Food and drink and sex and then more food and then more drink and then more sex. A swirling miasma of what should be “pleasure”, and yet, he was struck by the hollowness of it all. Did they truly enjoy this? Did he truly enjoy this?
Then again, if they did enjoy it, what did it matter?
There were important people in this universe. People upon whose actions his plans were contingent. These people needed to be closely watched, guided, mentored, or in some cases, manipulated or coerced, into following the correct path. These people, these cruxes, were few and far between, and he was thankful for that, as he had spent much of the last few centuries guiding them through the eye of the needle. The universe did not permit more than a few kings and queens upon the chessboard.
There were also influential people in this universe. People are resources, put simply. Two people have more absolute potential than one person, but that potential is not always exercised. Those of influence, more often than not, pushed people towards one extreme or another. He saw them at every scale: globally, nationally, locally, socially. And those influential people themselves needed to be influenced, but that was easy enough to do behind the scenes with a hidden hand. A war here. A social movement there. Sprinkle in a few shifts in cultural direction.
Then, there were effective people in this universe. Not necessarily creative thinkers in their own right, but actors, capable of putting a plan into action. These were the pawns, the rank and file that were sacrificed without much thought. But, (as he always reminded his protege), a pawn could always be promoted to something greater, so they were not to be summarily dismissed.
Finally, there was everyone else. People who would live their lives and die without any measurable impact on the course of the universe. What purpose did they serve? He could spend half an eternity converting every single one of them, and it would do nothing. Little would be lost if they were gone. And yet, little would be lost if they remained. He was as a God, but he was not malevolent.
And if this was how some of them filled their small lives, and it brought them pleasure, why begrudge them that?
But there was one, an aberration, someone who, like him, didn’t fit the pattern. It sat at the head of the hall, in an elaborate throne, watching the proceedings languidly. She was beautiful. He? It? He could detect the Glamour, prismatic and ever-changing, attempting to probe his mind. Its intent was to determine what one found most deeply and profoundly attractive, and then subtly present that back to the viewer. But it was still magic, which meant it had limits.
Merlin of the Line was that limit, and he had reached his. “Max.”
The beautiful anomaly raised her head. “John.”
They could have called each other by a thousand different appellations or epithets. But there were no pretenses to keep up, no battles to fight. The battles had already been fought, and Merlin had won them all.
“It’s time, Max.”
At this point, all the Glamours had melted away. The beautiful people who were splayed about the floor in indulging in various ecstasies were dismayed to see their platonic figures melt back into the flabby, second-rate bodies of peasants and adventurers. They looked around, ashamed of their nakedness, and self consciously began to skulk out of what was now a simple cabin in the woods.
The two Ancients ignored them. “I knew you’d come for me eventually. I’ve been expecting it ever since the Interdict. Which, I have to say, I don’t quite understand.”
Merlin cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“I never played the game on as many levels as you. I never had the need to, and I never had the want to, either. The games bore me, and if we’re being honest, the world will move on without me. I know you. You’re going to shape the world how you want it to be shaped and there’s not a god damned thing any of us can do about it.” At this, Max idly spat on the ground. “It’s why we’re all here, and not there,” he added, bitterly.
A beat of silence passed. None of what Max said required a rebuttal or response, so Merlin provided none. Besides, it was clear Max was mostly thinking out loud, and it was not long before he continued. “The first level interpretation is that you saw the danger of magic and did something about it. Only a fool would accept that at face value, which is why the majority of the world doesn’t look farther.
“The second level is that, it’s part of a larger plot, the first move in an epic, century-long war of attrition to eradicate magic. Of course, the hypocrisy of that is blatant: using magic to eradicate magic? That’s something that a villain out of storybook would do. And that’s where I’m stuck. You’re not a storybook villain. And tactically, it doesn’t make sense. If you have that kind of power at your disposal, and magic is your enemy, why limit it in this oddly specific, easily circumvented kind of way? There’s another level here.”
Merlin began to smile. It was a slow, sad smile, but it carried with it a hint of amusement. “I thought you said that the games bored you?”
“So it is part of the game, then.”
“Isn’t everything part of the game?”
“Depends on your definition. The game itself bores me. But the meta-game does not. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this for centuries, to see what you have planned for me. It’s really the only thing that I’ve looked forward to, the only thing that has kept me going.”
“Then what I have planned for you will be poetic.”
Another beat. Max spoke, “You want me to die.”
“We all must die, in order for the world to live.”
“You know as well as I do that there’s no middle ground, here. Either everyone dies, always, and forever. Or everyone lives. Always and forever. Infinity or zero. Nothing in between.”
At this, Merlin smiled. This truly was the crux of everything.
“You said you’re bored? Well, there’s your riddle. Figure out what I want, and then do it. Because it’s going to happen, one way or another,” Merlin paused, briefly, and then turned to leave. As he opened the door and stepped out onto the stilted porch, he looked over his shoulder. “It’s good to see you, Max.”
“You too, John.”
And for the first time in millenia, Max Koschey, Koschei the Deathless, Baba Yaga, Ma’krt of the Rock, He-With-A-Thousand-Names and a thousand other names, was interested in something.